The Journey of Faith – A Homily for Epiphany

There are so many wonderful details in the Epiphany story: the call of the Gentiles, their enthusiastic response, the significance of the star they seek, the gifts they bring, the dramatic interaction with Herod, and their ultimate rejection of Herod in favor of Christ.

In this meditation, I would like to follow these Magi in their journey of faith to become “Wise Men.” As magi, they followed the faint stars, distant points of light; as wise men, they follow Jesus, who is the ever-glorious Light from Light, true God from true God.

We can observe how they journey in stages from the light of a star to the bright and glorious Light of Jesus Christ. And, of course, to authentically encounter the Lord is to experience conversion. All the elements of this story ultimately serve to cause them to “return to their country by another route.” Let’s look at the stages of their journey from being mere magi to becoming, by God’s grace, wise men.

Stage 1: The CALL that COMPLETES – The text says, When Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, in the days of King Herod, behold, magi from the east arrived in Jerusalem, saying, “Where is the newborn king of the Jews? We saw his star at its rising and have come to do him homage.”

Notice the identity of these individuals: they are labeled magi (μάγοι (magoi) in Greek) and are from the East.

Exactly what “magi” are is not clear. Perhaps they are learned men; perhaps they are ancient astronomers. We often think of them as kings, though the text of this passage does not call them that. It also seems likely that Herod would have been far more anxious had they been actual potentates from an Eastern kingdom. We often think of them as kings because Psalm 72 (read in today’s Mass) speaks of kings coming from the East bearing gifts of gold and frankincense. However, for the record, the text in today’s Gospel does not call them kings, but rather “magi.”

Yet here is their key identity: they are Gentiles who have been called. Up until this point in the Christmas story, only Jews had found their way to Bethlehem. This detail cannot be overlooked, for it is clear that the Gospel is going out to all the world. This call completes the Church, which needs both Jews and Gentiles.

In today’s second reading, St. Paul rejoices in this fact, saying, the Gentiles are coheirs, members of the same body, and co-partners in the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel (Eph 3:6). Because most of us are not Jewish by ancestry we ought to rejoice, for the call of these Magi prefigures our call.

Notice that God calls them through something in the natural world: a star. God uses something in creation to call out to them.

We do well to wonder what is the “star” that God uses to call each of us? Perhaps it is Scripture, but more typically God uses someone in our life in order to reach us: a parent, a family member, a friend, a priest, a religious sister, or a devoted lay person. Who are the stars in your life through whom God called you?

God can also use inanimate creation, as he did for these Magi. Perhaps it was a magnificent church, or a beautiful painting, or an inspirational song that reached you. Through something or someone, God calls each of us; He puts a star in our sky. These Wise Men, these Magi, followed the call of God and began their journey to Jesus.

Stage 2: The CONSTANCY that CONQUERS – Upon arriving in Jerusalem, the Magi find a rather confusing and perhaps discouraging situation. The reigning king, Herod, knows nothing of the birth of this new King. The Magi likely assumed that the newborn King would be related to the current king, so Herod’s surprise may have confused them. And Herod seems more than surprised; he seems threatened and agitated.

Even more puzzling, Herod calls in religious leaders to get further information about this new King. They open the sacred writings and the Magi hear of a promised King. Ah, so the birth of this King has religious significance! How interesting!

But these religious leaders seem unenthusiastic about the newborn King, and after providing the location of His birth, make no effort to follow the Magi. There is no rejoicing, no summoning of the people to tell them that a longed-for King has finally been born, not even further inquiry!

So the wicked (Herod and his court) are wakeful while the saints are sleepy. How odd this must have seemed to the Magi! Perhaps they even thought about abandoning their search. After all, the actual king knew nothing of this new King’s birth, and those people who did know about it seemed rather uninterested.

Ah, but praise the Lord, they persevered in their search; they did not give up!

Thanks be to God, too, that many today have found their way to Christ despite the fact that parents, clergy, and others who should have led them to Jesus were either asleep, ignorant, or just plain lazy. I am often amazed at some of the conversion stories I have heard: people who found their way to Christ and His Church despite some pretty daunting obstacles (e.g., poor religious upbringing, scandalous clergy, and poor role models). God sometimes allows our faith and call to be tested, but Those who persevere to the end will be saved (Matt 24:13).

To persevere is to open the door to wisdom, which often must be sought in spite of obstacles. This constancy is often what it takes to overcome the darkness and discouragements of the world.

Stage 3: The CONDESCENSION that CONFESSES – The text says, After their audience with the king they set out. And behold, the star that they had seen at its rising preceded them, until it came and stopped over the place where the child was. They were overjoyed at seeing the star, and on entering the house they saw the child with Mary his mother. They prostrated themselves and did him homage.

With what little information they have, the Magi set out and continue to follow the call of God through the star.

Note that they enter a “house.” We often think of the Magi as coming that same Christmas night to the cave or stable, but it seems not; Mary, Joseph, and Jesus are now in a house. Apparently they have been able to find decent lodging. Has it been days or weeks since Jesus’ birth? Regardless, it is likely not Christmas Day itself.

Notice, too, that they “prostrate” themselves before Jesus. The Greek word used is προσεκύνησαν (prosekunēsan), which means “to fall down in worship” or “to give adoration.” This word is used twelve times in the New Testament and each time it is clear that religious worship is the reason for the prostration.

This is no minor act of homage or sign of respect to an earthly king; this is religious worship. It is a confession of faith. The Magi manifest faith! The beginning of wisdom is the fear of the Lord. And these Magi are well on their way from being mere magi to being wise men!

But is their faith a real faith or just a perfunctory observance? It is not enough to answer an altar call or to get baptized. Faith is never alone; it is a transformative relationship with Jesus Christ. So let’s look for the effects of a real and saving faith.

Stage 4: The COST that COMES – There is a cost to discipleship. The Magi are moved to give three symbolic gifts that show some of what true faith includes. They are costly gifts.

Gold symbolizes all of our possessions. In laying this gift before Jesus, they and we are saying, “I acknowledge that everything I have is yours. I put all my resources and wealth under your authority and will use them only according to your will.” A conversion that has not reached the wallet is not complete.

Frankincense is a resin used in incense and symbolizes the gift of worship. In the Bible, incense is a symbol of prayer and worship (e.g., Psalm 141). In laying down this gift, we promise to pray and worship God all the days of our life, to be in His holy house each Sunday, to render Him the praise and worship He is due, to listen to His word and consent to be fed the Eucharist by Him, to worship Him worthily by frequent confession, and to praise Him at all times.

Myrrh is a strange gift for an infant; it is usually understood as a burial ointment. Surely this prefigures Jesus’ death, but it also symbolizes our own. In laying this gift before Jesus we are saying, “My life is yours. I want to die so that you may live your life in me. May you increase and may I decrease. Use me and my life as you will.”

Yes, these three gifts are highly symbolic.

The Magi manifest more than a little homage to Jesus. They are showing forth the fruits of saving faith. And if we can give these gifts, so are we.

In their holy reverence for God is wisdom in its initial stage!

Stage 5: The CONVERSION that is CLEAR – The text says, And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they departed for their country by another way.

Here, then, is essential evidence for faith: conversion. It is not enough to get “happy” in Church; we have to obey. These Wise Men are walking differently now. They are not going home by the same way they came. They’ve changed direction; they’ve turned around (conversio). They are now willing to walk the straight and narrow path that leads to life rather than the wide road that leads to damnation. They are going to obey Christ. They are going to exhibit what St. Paul calls the “obedience of faith” (Rom 1:5; 16:26). They have not just engaged in perfunctory worship; they are showing signs of a true and saving faith. They are not just calling out to Jesus, “Lord, Lord!” They are doing what He tells them (cf Luke 6:46).

No longer mere magi, they are now wise men!

So there it is. Through careful stages, the Lord has brought the Gentiles (this means you and me) to conversion. He called these Magi to wisdom. They remained constant, confessed Him to be Lord, accepted the cost of discipleship, and manifested conversion. Have you? Have I?

Walk in the ways of these Wise Men! Wise men still seek Him; even wiser ones listen to and obey Him. Are we willing to go back to our country by another route? Is ongoing conversion part of our journey home to Heaven? Epiphany means “manifestation.” How is our faith made manifest in our deeds and conversion?

I have it on the best of authority that as the (now) Wise Men went home by another route, they were singing this gospel song:

It’s a highway to heaven!
None can walk up there
but the pure in heart.
I am walking up the King’s highway.
If you’re not walking,
start while I’m talking.
There’ll be a blessing
you’ll be possessing,
walking up the King’s highway.

Priest or Pinocchio?

The commercial below is a reminder to all of us clergy who stand before the people of God each Sunday that they aren’t easily fooled.

People know if we are genuine or if we are just saying things we think we ought to say or heard others say. They can tell if we really know the Lord and the truths we proclaim or if we’ve just studied them. No preacher can perfectly live the Gospel he preaches, but people know when clergymen are living double lives or are being inauthentic. They know when we are merely playing a role. They know when we are half-heartedly saying what we think we’re expected to say without really believing it—a lot like Pinocchio in the commercial.

People also recognize when we are striving for holiness, really loving God and His people. They can tell whether we are men of prayer, preaching God’s word with experience because we try to live it each day and see its fruits in our lives.

Yes, I am convinced that you in the laity can tell the difference. Pray for the bishops, priests, and deacons who stand before you; pray that we will be the men that God and you deserve.

A Picture of a Strong Bishop in the Face of Suffering

On January 2nd, we celebrated the feast of St. Basil and St. Gregory Nazianzen. They were bishops in Cappadocia (modern-day Turkey) during the stormy period of the Arian heresy, which denied the divinity of Christ. Despite the strong affirmation by the Council of Nicaea, the Arian heretics did not desist. Saints Basil and Gregory were strong forces for truth in the long battle to stamp out the heresy. When the emperor, Julian the Apostate, sought to compel bishops to admit Arian heretics to Holy Communion both these bishops refused to comply.

An interaction between St. Basil and the local prefect of the emperor shows forth an image of a strong bishopthat is rare today. Encountering St. Basil’s resistance, the prefect said,

“Are you mad, that you resist the will [of the emperor] before which the whole world bows? Do you not dread the wrath of the emperor, nor exile, nor death?”

“No,” said Basil calmly, “he who has nothing to lose need not dread loss of goods; you cannot exile me, for the whole earth is my home; as for death, it would be the greatest kindness you could bestow upon me; torments cannot harm me: one blow would end my frail life and my sufferings together.”

“Never,” said the prefect, “has anyone dared to address me thus.” “Perhaps,” suggested Basil, “you never before measured your strength with a Christian bishop” (from Butler’s Lives of the Saints).

The emperor backed down.

The lives of early bishops were filled with suffering, exile, and martyrdom.Thirty of the first thirty-three popes were martyred, two died in exile, and only one died in his own bed. It was a similar story with many ancient bishops, for example Athanasius, Chrysostom, Basil, and Gregory. It’s hard to imagine many among the current leaders of the Church enduring such suffering. Many bishops and higher clergy today live comfortable, protected lives. Even less elevated clergymen live fairly insular lives, shielded from the ordinary struggles of the laity. Many of us have healthcare, housing, laundry services, prepared meals, and staff to handle many day-to-day matters. God bless all of our staff and God’s good people, who care for us so well.

There comes a point, though, when we clergy become soft, no longer able to relate to even small sufferings,let alone larger ones that might come from preaching the Gospel in an uncompromising and clear way. Failing to accept this suffering in our own lives, we fear to preach it to others.

Unlike St. Basil, who had felt he had nothing to lose, we modern clergy often think we have too much to lose. Indeed, the whole Church (at least in the prosperous West) fears we have too much to lose.We fear the loss of popularity, political power, and access; we fear the impact on our careers; we fear the loss of buildings, institutions, and programs as well as the money and power needed to sustain them. We seem to fear just about everything except the loss of our faith, which we are too willing compromise, ignore, or water down in order to keep the lesser things.

Ultimately, however, this world and the devil will never be satisfiedwith compromises we make until every last bit of our integrity is gone. Whatever time we buy through compromise is temporary; it is a pyrrhic “victory.” Despite all our attempts to fit in with the modern world, we are still closing churches and schools; Catholic charities are losing contracts; our members are continuing to drift away. The world cannot save us; being popular or up to date does not inspire faith or attract converts. Owning nice buildings is worthless if they are empty.

We end with a paradox.Acting out of fear that we have too much to lose will mean that we lose everything. Freely accepting that we have nothing to lose will mean that we gain everything, for we gain Christ Jesus and all that He promises us here and in the life to come.

But seek ye first the Kingdom of God and his righteousness and all these things will be added unto you(Matt 6:33).

And anyone who does not take up his cross and follow Me is not worthy of Me. Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for My sake will find it(Matt 10:38-39).

May St. Basil, St. Gregory, and all the heroes and martyrs pray for us, clergy and laity alike!

Some Gifts in Strange Packages from 2019

It is hard to describe 2019 in glowing terms for the Church, whether in the United States or worldwide. I will not recite every gory detail here, but this year saw a further unfolding of the drama of sexual abuse, both the abuse itself and the deposing of several bishops and other clergy for covering it up. More of the same is likely to follow in the year to come. This has led to further discouragement among both clergy and the faithful.

Can anything good possibly come from 2019? None of us can say for certain, but we do know that God can write straight with crooked lines; He can make a way out of no way. Some of God’s greatest gifts come in strange packages. Though I have been a vocal critic of many of the events of the past few years, I would like to point out some positive effects of the ordeal. I pray that these do not become overcorrections, which can sometimes be as bad as the evils they replace.

The laity has found its collective voice.

Many of us can remember a time when it was almost unthinkable to say anything negative about a member of the clergy. Even if one saw evidence of problematic behavior, mentioning it was verboten. There was an almost excessive deference by the laity to Church authority. Because the priest was holy and had given his life to God, questioning or opposing him was tantamount to questioning or opposing God.

Though this began changing in the 1970s and 1980s, there has still been a sometimes-unhealthy submissiveness to the clergy, especially bishops. For traditional Catholics, disrespect for the clergy—especially the pope—was a mark of dissent and was highly frowned upon. A true and orthodox Catholic had a filial love for the pope and, as general rule, for the bishops in union with him.

Although we call priests “Father” and think of bishops as shepherds, most of us are adult children. The Catholic faithful have equal dignity before God and have both the right and the duty to work with their clergy in manifesting the Church. The roles are distinct, but the responsibility is shared.

While not rejecting the divine constitution of the Church (wherein the Lord established his clergy with the power to teach, govern, and sanctify in a unique and authoritative way), God’s faithful are to work with their clergy so that the clergy are responsible and accountable for the gifts and roles God has given them. Canon 212.3 says this of the lay faithful:

According to the knowledge, competence, and prestige which they possess, they have the right and even at times the duty to manifest to the sacred pastors their opinion on matters which pertain to the good of the Church and to make their opinion known to the rest of the Christian faithful, without prejudice to the integrity of faith and morals, with reverence toward their pastors, and attentive to common advantage and the dignity of persons.

A fawning and overly deferential attitude toward the clergy does not help them or the Church.

The bishops and other clergy have been humbled in a way that may have salutary effects.

Over the past thirty years, many Catholics have become more comfortable giving feedback to their local priests, even confronting them when necessary. Bishops, however, have continued to be well-insulated; they are often surrounded and protected by several layers of staff. Most lay people indicate that they have no hope of ever getting through to the bishop. Even letters addressed to the bishop are answered by subordinates. In some larger dioceses, even priests can have difficulty meeting or speaking with their bishop.

Many bishops have become aware that they are too distant from their people and must get better at listening to them, taking their concerns seriously, and participating more in the everyday life of the flock.

Clergy are more likely to correct one another and to speak more honestly to their bishop.

Priests are not immune from showing excessive deference to and flattery of higher-level Church officials. Priests are people, and most people are hesitant to speak clearly and forthrightly to those in authority over them.

We priests need to overcome this tendency and learn to speak more frankly, yet still respectfully, to our bishops. A priest has a shared responsibility with his bishop, acting as his eyes and ears in the parish as well as being his voice to the parishioners. Priests must become more willing to say things to their bishop that he would rather not hear but needs to hear.

The recent crisis has helped some priests, even if only a minority, to speak out, to the bishop and to the laity, with clarity and charity. Priests owe respect and obedience to their bishop, not obsequiousness or fawning deference, but manly and respectful interaction that has the best interests of the bishop and the wider Church at heart.

We have learned the price of silence and compromise.

The sexual revolution was simmering through the early 1960s and reached a boil in the last few years of the decade. Sadly, most clergy and parents remained silent as the body count grew. It is estimated that there are more than 40 million abortions per year around the world. Most children today are raised without the benefit of a father and mother in a stable marriage. Sexual promiscuity (and the resultant sexually transmitted diseases) and sexual confusion are rampant. Yet the silence from many pulpits is deafening.

In 1968, many clergy, embarrassed by the prophetic encyclical Humanae Vitae, simply stopped teaching on human sexuality. It became too politicized, too controversial for their tastes. In sowing the wind, we have reaped the whirlwind.

We have been reminded that “tactful” silence is foolish, and compromise with the world brings a false peace rooted in lies. The world will never be satisfied with any compromise we make. In fact, it derides us when we do so! The world will only be satisfied with total surrender. The sexual sin and confusion, up through the highest ranks of clergy, shows forth the price of such compromise. The world is not changed by our compromise, but we are corrupted, weakened, and confused by it. We have earned no converts, only derision and moral debilitation.

It’s time to get back to the uncorrupted and pure teaching of Scripture, which is more concerned with people’s salvation than with their feelings.

Some are now speaking more plainly about the central issues of homosexuality and the abuse of power.

The connection of homosexuality to sexual abuse by clergy has been a forbidden topic, but the current crisis has forced it into the open. (I have written in detail about this topic in other posts: here and here.) When 80 percent of the victims of sexual abuse by clergy are males, we must investigate why that is the case; remaining silent about this fact has only caused further damage. An honest assessment is necessary in order for any solution to be credible.

Clearly, those with deep-seated homosexual tendencies are going to face unique problems in the same-sex settings of seminaries, rectories, and religious houses. The Pope himself raised these concerns in 2018. The current crisis has encouraged more to speak out about these issues, realizing that continued silence will only make matters worse.

The common good and the spiritual welfare of those with same-sex attraction require a truthful assessment of this matter no matter how unpopular such observations and prescriptions may be. Besides, the world isn’t going to love us no matter what we do!

We are now more aware that the victims of sexual abuse are not just pre-pubescent, pubescent, and post-pubescent minors, but vulnerable adults as well.

Although seminarians and newer priests are adults, an older priest or bishop can use his power, authority, and influence over their future to make it difficult for them to resist sexual advances.

Further, because priests are called “Father,” any sexual interaction with the faithful—male or female, young or old—can rightly be called “spiritual incest.” All this talk about “consenting adults” ignores the fact that many relationships are not ones between equals. The #MeToo movement has brought this out in the business, media, and Hollywood worlds.

There is a growing awareness in the secular world of the damage that can be caused by caretakers, therapists, counselors, and others in positions of influence who take sexual advantage of vulnerable adults. In the Church, a priest who does this is guilty not only of violating a professional boundary but also of sacrilege, because he violates his sacred vows.

The current crisis has caused the Church to take a much clearer look at this aspect of the problem. If even the secular world is beginning to understand this, we can do no less.

Beware of over-correction! Above are some positive outcomes from the crisis, even if painful in their initial unfolding. They can be helpful trends for the Church provided they do not become overcorrections. This is one of the dangers of any response to a crisis: that we simply swing to an extreme that may be equally undesirable. For example, overcorrections might result in some of these:

  • a laity that is so bold as to be incorrigible, unteachable, and disrespectful of clergy and bishops
  • bishops that are so anxious for the approval of their flock that they stop leading and prophetically challenging the faithful to follow Christ, especially in matters that challenge popular ways of thinking
  • the neglect of mercy and the pastoral need to be patient in leading people out of habitual sin
  • the failure to address the sexual abuse of females by clergy (20% of victims)
  • the disparagement of sexual attraction to the extent that even appropriate flattery and outreach (e.g., asking someone out for a date) is considered abuse. Attraction between men and women is normal and healthy and should not be demonized. Obviously, clergy should never signal sexual interest, but a mere look or an expression of concern does not amount to a boundary violation.

Ultimately, we must lovingly summon all to chaste living in accordance with the Sixth Commandment and God’s overall teaching. If we can be serious and loving about this, something good may emerge from the ongoing crisis.

A Meditation on the Mystery of Time

I open our New Year’s Eve late night Mass (11:15 PM) with the observation that we begin Mass in one year and end in the next. New Year’s Eve highlights the mysterious passage between years. In a way I suppose it is no more mysterious than the passage from Thursday to Friday or from 10:00 AM to 10:01 AM.

In one sense, nothing could be simpler than time. I might ask you, “What time is it?” You might reply, “It’s 1:15.” Simple! But time has mysteries about it.

What is time? Some say it’s merely a measure of change, but that doesn’t make a lot of sense because change doesn’t occur at a steady pace at all.

Some say it’s just another way of measuring distance in the space-time continuum. Time and distance are certainly related. To look out at the stars at night is to look into the past; it has taken millions of years for the light from some stars to reach us over vast distances through the vacuum of space. Even the light from our sun is eight minutes old before it reaches us.

But there’s more to time than distance, and we all know it. There are several different words for time in Greek. Chronos refers to clock time. Kairos encompasses a complex notion of time experienced subjectively. Sometimes ten minutes can seem like an hour, but there are other times when an hour can pass by swiftly. Further, things can seem fitting at certain times but not at others. Kairos thus expresses an elastic notion of time. Finally, there is aeon (eternity, or the fullness of time). I’ll comment more on aeon below.

Every year at this point I ponder the mystery of time, probably because time is so much on our minds. As I do so, I am mindful that most of us think we know what time is until we’re asked to define it in some meaningful way. It reminds me of what St. Augustine once said about another mystery: the Trinity. If someone asks me to define time, I am tempted quote St. Augustine: “If you don’t ask me, I know. If you ask me, I don’t know.” So time, while plain and simple on one level, is mysterious on other levels.

I cannot list all such mysteries, but consider these examples:

The Mystery of Time’s Elasticity

We like to think that time is unvarying, that 10 minutes here is the same as 10 minutes there. But science has largely disproved that. For example, as an object approaches the speed of light, time slows down. Further, strong gravitational forces also slow down time. On a very large planet with strong gravitational forces I would age less rapidly than on a smaller planet. Granted, it would take a huge difference in speed or gravity to be able to observe much of a difference, but the law of relativity does demonstrate that time does not pass equally everywhere. In a way, it is almost like a comparing a large, lumbering elephant to a tiny mouse. As the mouse scurries across the floor (pursued by my cat!) its speed is amazing, almost as if the mouse were operating in a different time frame.

The Mystery of Life Spans

Why are the life spans of different species so different? Like me, my cat Daniel is a mammal; our physiology is quite similar in most respects. Yet his clock is likely to expire after about 15 years while mine is more likely to make it closer to 80 years. Certain turtles can live up to 150 years. Many types of parrots can live to be over 100, while other birds live only 10 to 15 years. Most fish live only a few years, but carp can live up to 100 years. We all seem to have a clock, a designated life span. But that life span seems quite variable even among very similar animals. We seem to carry the mystery of time within us. I have never heard a satisfying explanation of the wide variability in life spans.

The Mystery of our “Inner Clock”

Most of our demarcations of time are clearly rooted in the celestial cycle. A day is the cycle of the earth rotating on its axis. A year is the cycle of the earth orbiting the sun. A month (a least originally) is rooted in the cycle of the moon orbiting the earth (“month” is just a mispronunciation of “moonth”). Seasons result from the earth’s trajectory around the sun as well as the tilt of the earth’s rotational axis in relation to the plan of its orbit. More mysterious is the 7-day cycle we call the “week.” Where does it come from? Human beings in most cultures seem to have a need to “reset the clock” every seven days. The Genesis account of creation in seven days, surely influenced the Judeo-Christian culture, but other cultures show a similar tendency toward seven days. Where does the seven-day week come from? It’s mysterious. As humans, we seem have some inner clock that needs resetting at about that frequency.

The Mystery of Eternity

Finally, there is the mystery of what we call “eternity.” Most people misunderstand the word simply to mean a very long time. But that is not what is meant by the word. When the Greeks coined the word eternity (aeon) they meant by it “the fullness of time.” Eternity is the past, present, and future all being experienced at once. I cannot tell you what this is like, but I can illustrate it. Look at the graphic of the clock at the upper right. It shows 2:00 (let’s assume in the afternoon). That means that 10:00 AM is in the past while 6:00 PM is in the future. But consider the dot at the center of the clock. At that spot, 10:00 AM, 2:00 PM, and 6:00 PM are all the same; they are equally present to the center. We live our life in serial time, on the outer edge of the clock. But God does not; He lives in eternity. God lives in the fullness of time. For God, the past and the future are the same as the present. God is not “waiting” for things to happen. All things just are. God is not waiting and wondering whether you or I will get to Heaven. He is not watching history unfold like a movie. In eternity, thousands of years ago is just as present as is thousands of years from now.

Scripture hints at God’s eternity in numerous passages:

But do not ignore this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is like a thousand years and a thousand years like one day (2 Peter 3:8).

Your eyes foresaw my actions; in your book all are written down; my days were shaped, before one came to be (Ps 139, 15).

For a thousand years in your sight are like a day that has just gone by, or like a watch in the night (Ps 90:4).

And then there is God’s name: “I AM.” In this name there is no past and no future, just an eternal now (the present tense). Jesus declared to the crowds, Before Abraham ever was, I AM (John 8:58). This is the most awesome mystery of time: the fullness of time, eternity.

Ponder God’s glory and the mystery of time!

Here’s a remarkable video on the mystery of time:

The Many Meanings of January 1st

123114This feast day of January 1st is a very complex tapestry, both culturally and liturgically. Perhaps we can use the second reading by St. Paul to the Galatians as a way to weave through some of the many details. We can look at it in three parts.

The chronology of our celebration – The text from St. Paul’s letter to the Galatians says, When the fullness of time had come …

Most people in the wider culture and in the Church are going about today saying, “Happy New Year!” And rightfully so, for it is the beginning of the new year. But most people think of New Year’s Day in almost wholly secular terms. Sadly, it is best known for excessive drinking and rather loud parties.

Yet it is a mistake to see New Year’s Day simply as a secular holiday. St. Paul reminds us, in speaking of “the fullness of time,” that all time and all ages belong to God.

It is not simply 2020; it is 2020 Anno Domini (A.D.). Even the most secular and unbelieving of people in the Western world locate their place in time in relation to Jesus Christ. It is 2020 years since the birth of Christ. Every time we write the date on a check or at the top of the letter, every time we see the date at the top of the newspaper or on our computer screen, that number, 2020, points back to Christ. He is the Lord of history. Jesus sets the date; He is the clock we go by. All time belongs to Him.

Jesus says in the book of Revelation, I am the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, The beginning and the end. He who is, and who was, and who is to come (Revelation 22:13).

If it is true that 2020 references the birth of Christ, the question arises as to why Christmas Day is not also New Year’s Day. But this actually fits in well to liturgical and spiritual sensibilities.

In the Church, and stretching back into Jewish times, it was customary to celebrate the high feasts of faith over the period of a week. In Christian tradition this came to be known as the “octave.” Although we think of a week as comprising seven days, consider that we celebrated Christmas this past Wednesday and this week we celebrate New Year’s Day on Wednesday; Wednesday to Wednesday, inclusive, is eight days.

Wednesday, January 1, 2020 is the eighth day of Christmas. In the Christian tradition the octave is considered really as one long day that lasts eight days. Therefore, Wednesday, January 1, 2020, completes Christmas day; Christmas day is fulfilled. Or as St. Paul says, the “fullness of time” in terms of Christmas day has come. And thus the calendars flip from one year to the next. Now, at the end of Christmas day, our calendars go from 2019 to 2020 A.D.

The rest of the secular world has largely moved on already, barely thinking of Christmas anymore. As I walk in my neighborhood, I see the strange spectacle of Christmas trees already set out at the curb waiting to be picked up by the recycling trucks. Yes, for many in our hurried world, Christmas is over. But we in the Church continue to celebrate the great Christmas feast and cycle. Having completed the octave, we move on to Epiphany week.

Thus, this New Year, we contemplate the “fullness of time.” The passage of another year reminds us of the magnificent truth that to God all time, past, present, and future, is equally present. He holds all things together in Himself. He is the same yesterday, today, tomorrow, and forever. And whenever He acts, He always acts in our time, out of the fullness of time. This is a very deep mystery and we should ponder in silence the mystery that for God, all things are. He is not waiting for things to happen. For Him, everything is accomplished. I will write more on this in tomorrow’s blog.

The content of our celebration – St. Paul goes on to say, God sent forth his son born of a woman. And with this statement we are again reminded that we are still in the Christmas cycle.

We’ve already discussed the concept of the eighth day, of the octave. And while it is New Year’s Day, there is also a complex tapestry of religious meanings to this day as well.

As we’ve already seen, it is still Christmas day, the eighth day of the one long day that we call Christmas Day.

Historically, this is also the day of Christ’s circumcision. And for a long period in Church history that was the name given to this feast day, “The Circumcision of the Lord.” As I have written previously, I personally regret the loss of this feast, at least in terms of its title.

This is the day when Joseph and Mary brought Christ to be circumcised. In this, Jesus as man and also as God reverences the covenant He has made with His people. It is a beautiful truth that God seeks relationship with His people. And in this covenantal act of the circumcision is the moving truth that, as the Letter to the Hebrews puts it, Jesus is not ashamed to call us His brothers (Heb 2:11).

There is here the first shedding of blood by Jesus. It is also a sign of His love for us.

Another truth about the content of this feast is the Holy Name of Jesus. For not only was a Jewish boy circumcised on the eighth day, but he was also given his name, and all hear that name for the first time.

The name, Jesus, means “God saves.” And indeed this most Holy Name of Jesus, when used in reverence, has saving power. We are baptized in His Holy Name along with that of the Father and the Holy Spirit. And all of our prayers conclude with His Holy Name. Scripture says of His great and holy name,

Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father (Phil 2: 9-11).

And yet another identity and content of this feast day is shown in its current, formal title, “The Solemnity of Mary Mother of God.” This title replaced the title of the Feast of the Circumcision back in 1970. However, it is the most ancient title for this feast day. Again, you can read more on this issue in a previous blog post.

We note in the reading that Paul says that God sent forth his Son, born of a woman. Jesus is the eternal Son of the Father; He is God from God, Light from Light, True God from True God. Jesus is God, and since Mary gives birth to Jesus, Mary is the Mother of God, because Jesus is not two different persons.

Mary did not just give birth to part of Jesus, she gives birth to Jesus. And thus the title “Mother of God” speaks to us as much about Jesus as it does about Mary. It is a title that she has because of the Church’s insistence that Jesus cannot be divided up into two different people. We cannot say that Mary gives birth to one Jesus but not “the other one.” There is only one Jesus, though He has two natures, human and divine.

And thus, on this feast of Christmas, on this eighth day of Christmas, we are reminded and solemnly taught that Jesus is human and also divine. In taking a human nature to Himself from his mother Mary, He remains one person. God has sent forth his son born of woman.

The consolation of our celebration – St. Paul goes on to say, Born under the law to ransom those under the law so that we might receive adoption as sons. As proof that you are sons, God sent the Spirit of his Son in our hearts crying out Abba, Father! So you are no longer a slave,  but a son, and, if a son, also an heir through God.

Note three things about this text:

Our Adoption – We have already noted that on the eighth day Jesus is circumcised and enters into the Covenant,  into the Law. In the Incarnation He joins the human family; in the Covenant He joins our family of faith. He will fulfill the old Covenant and inaugurate the new one. And by this New Covenant, by baptism into Him, we become members of His Body and thereby become adopted as sons.

We become sons in the Son. When God the Father looks to His Son, loving His Son, he is also looking at us and loving us, for we are in Christ Jesus, members of His Body through baptism. God is now our Father, not in some allegorical sense, but in a very real sense. We are in Jesus and therefore God really is our Father.

Our Acclamation – St. Paul says that the proof of our sonship is the movement of the Holy Spirit in us that cries out Abba! In Aramaic and Hebrew, Abba is the family term for father. It is not baby talk, like “Dada.” But just as most adults called their father “Dad” or some other endearment rather than “father,” so it is that Abba is the family term for father. It would be a daring thing for us to call God “Dad” unless we were permitted to do so, and instructed to do so by Christ.

St. Paul speaks of this word as proof that we are sons. In so doing, he emphasizes that it is not merely the saying of the word that he refers to. Even a parrot can be taught to say the word. Rather, St. Paul is referring to what the word represents: an inner movement of the Holy Spirit wherein we experience a deep affection for God the Father. By our adoption, our baptism into Christ, by our reception of the Holy Spirit, we love the Father! We develop a deep affection for Him and dread offending Him. By this gift of the Spirit, God is my Father whom I deeply love!

Our advancement – Notice that St. Paul then speaks of how we have moved from being a slave to being a son, an heir. In Jesus, we are not just any son, we are the only Son of the Father. And as Jesus has a kingdom from His Father, we too inherit it with Him! As sons in the Son, we are heirs with Jesus to the Kingdom!  Jesus speaks of His disciples as one day reigning with Him: And I confer on you a kingdom, just as my Father conferred one on me (Lk 22:29). In Jesus, all Heaven will be ours and we will reign with Christ forever. This is not our doing, not our glory; it is Christ’s doing and His glory in which we share.

And thus we have a very rich tapestry on this New Year’s Day, this feast of the Octave of Christmas, this Feast of the Circumcision of the Lord, this Feast of the Holy Name of Jesus, this Feast of Mary the Mother of God. And also we are given this feast wherein the glory of Christ is held before us and we who are  members of His body are told of the gifts that we receive by His Holy Incarnation and His Passion, Death, and Resurrection.

It’s not a bad way to start the new year: reminded of God’s incredible love for us, of His rich blessings and promises.

On the Value of Silence before the Great Mystery of the Incarnation

blog-12-tnSomething at Christmas urges me (a man of many words) to write of holy silence. Perhaps it is due to one of the great Christmas antiphons, which speaks of the birth of Christ as a magnum mysterium (a great mystery). During Mass recently, the words of Zechariah came to mind:

Sing and rejoice, O daughter of Zion, for behold, I come and I will dwell in your midst, declares the Lord … Be silent, all flesh, before the Lord, for he has roused himself from his holy dwelling (Zechariah 2:11, 13).

There is a common idiom: “Words fail me.” It is in this context that we can best understand God’s call to fall silent before the mystery of the Lord’s incarnation. Notice in the passage above that the call to silence follows the call to “sing and rejoice.”

Is there a difference between singing and rejoice and just plain speaking? Of course there is! By adding the inscrutable sighs we call “song” (a deeply mysterious emanation from our souls) to the words, singing is declaring that “words fail.”

To be sure, words are a “necessary evil” for us, but in using words we indicate more what a thing is not than what it is. For example, if I say to you, “I am a man,” I have really told you more what I am not than what I am. I have told you I am not a woman nor a chair nor a lion nor a rock. But I have not told what it means to be a man. I have not told you myriad other things about myself that I could: I am a priest; my father was a lawyer and Navy veteran; my mother was a teacher; I am descended from Irish, German, and English immigrants. I have not told you about my gifts or my talents or my struggles or numerous other aspects that make me who I am. And even if I spent several paragraphs relating my curriculum vitae to you, there would still be vastly more left unsaid than was said. Words fail.

Further, words are not the reality they (often poorly) attempt to convey. They are symbols of what they indicate. If you see a sign, “Washington” you don’t stop there and take a picture of the sign. The sign itself is not Washington; it merely points to the reality that is Washington. You pass the sign and enter into a reality far bigger than the metal sign and begin to experience it. Words fail.

Many words are also more unlike the reality they describe than like it. My philosophy teacher once asked us how we would describe the color green to a man born blind. We struggled with the task but were able to come up with some analogies: green is like the taste of cool mint; green is like the feel of dew-covered grass. To some extent green is like these things, but the color green is more unlike these things than like them. Green, as a reality, is so much richer than the taste of cool mint or the feel of dew-covered grass. Words fail.

And if this be so in the case of mere earthly things, how much more so in the case of heavenly and Godly matters! The Lord, therefore, commands a holy silence of us as a kind of reminder that words fail. Silence is proper reverence for the mystery of the incarnation and of God. Words are necessary; without them, orthodoxy could not be set forth, and truth could not be conveyed. But, especially regarding God and the truths of faith, there comes this salutary reminder from St. Thomas Aquinas: Now, because we cannot know what it God is, but rather what he is not, we have no means for considering how God is, but rather how he is not (Prima pars, q. 3, prologue).

Therefore, fellow Catholics, as the mysteries of the incarnation unfold for us liturgically, Let all mortal flesh keep silence, and with fear and trembling stand, Christ our God to earth descendeth, bearing blessings in his hand (from the hymn, “Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence”).

Biblical Teaching on Marriage and Family—A Homily for the Feast of the Holy Family

It is not difficult to demonstrate that most of our modern problems center around marriage, sexuality, and the family. In our thinking and our behavior in these three fundamental areas, we have departed significantly from the teachings of God and from common sense.

Today’s Feast of the Holy Family provides a rich tapestry of Scripture readings and presents us with an opportunity to reflect. Many of these teachings are not politically correct, but for that I make no apology. They remain God’s teachings and it is hard to argue that modern notions of sexuality, marriage and family have produced anything short of catastrophe. And, as is often the case, it is children who suffer the most.

Any look at statistics reveals facts and trends that are not merely alarming but downright astonishing, especially given how suddenly they have occurred. More than 40% of children in this country today are raised in homes without both parents. The numbers are even lower within minority communities.

In 1961, the year I was born, 80% of black children were raised in a two-parent family; today that number is 20%. And for whatever assertions may be made regarding ongoing poverty, the poverty rate overall and in the black community is substantially lower today than it was in 1961. Even with far greater pressures, black families used to stay together and work through their difficulties. Today, despite far greater affluence, this is no longer the case. White families and other ethnic/racial groups may have numbers that are slightly less shocking, but when we factor in age and generational differences, the numbers are not that far apart across the races/ethnicities.

The two-parent, heterosexual family is becoming an endangered species. Many grave consequences have resulted from this decline: lower student test scores and graduation rates; higher rates of divorce, cohabitation, teenage pregnancy, sexually transmitted diseases, declared homosexual inclination, and juvenile delinquency. Clearly, as the model of the stable, faithful heterosexual marriage becomes rarer, young people become less and less likely to be able to establish strong families of their own.

Despite the claims that this disordered state of affairs is just fine and that “alternative families” are just as good as traditional ones, most people know that this is a lie. It’s just common sense that the best for any child is to be raised in what nature and nature’s God has set forth as the proper environment: a father and a mother, a male and female, in a stable, committed, lasting marriage. In this safe environment of trust, children learn the male and female genius of being human. A mother alone or a father alone or two fathers or two mothers or any other combination is far less than ideal; to intentionally subject children to this is an injustice to them.

Yet such departures from God’s plan for marriage and family are increasingly the norm today. There is much about which to pray and reflect on this Feast of the Holy Family.

Having reviewed in a general way the problems regarding sexuality and family life today, let’s take a look at some of the highlights of today’s readings and see five basic teachings or themes.

Honor The opening of the first reading says, God sets a father in honor over his children; a mother’s authority he confirms over her sons (Sirach 3:2). The reading goes on to state the blessings that come from this honor and obedience.

Yet, in modern culture, honor directed toward parents and elders has increasingly disappeared. The steady diet of most children, whether through television, music, or other media, leads them to think that they are the smart ones while adults are clueless and out-of-touch. And when fathers are even present, they are often depicted as buffoons.

When I was a child, my father forbade us to watch The Flintstones. He said that he would not allow his children to watch a cartoon that presented adults as stupid because this would discourage respect for elders. He was right. Of course, The Flintstones is pretty mild in its depiction of adults compared to what is common today.

God teaches and commands children to honor their father and their mother. Without respect and honor, there can be no teaching or handing on of wisdom from previous generations. The lack of honor and respect for parents, elders, and authority figures in our culture goes a long way to explain why we are repeating foolish mistakes long since discarded by our forebears.

While previous generations of Christians were by no means sinless, it is evident that we are moving rapidly backwards; the folly and sinfulness of the pagan world described by St. Paul in Romans Chapter 1 have reemerged on a wide scale. Our folly is even worse, though, because unlike the pagans of old, we have access to the gospel and our culture has emerged from the Judeo-Christian wisdom. But in a kind of adolescent rebellion, we have collectively cast off the respect and honor that is due our elders as well as the traditions and wisdom that they and the Church can offer us.

We must restore honor to our parents, elders, and lawful authority (e.g., the Church) if we want to see our families and culture strong again. Parents and those in lawful authority must also learn to teach and act as those worthy of commanding respect.

Hierarchy – Although it is currently politically incorrect, the Lord through Scripture teaches that the family must be hierarchically ordered, with the father and husband as its head.

Today’s text from Colossians says clearly,

Wives, be subordinate to your husbands, as is proper in the Lord. Husbands, love your wives, and avoid any bitterness toward them. Children, obey your parents in everything, for this is pleasing to the Lord (Col 3:19-21).

Headship is required of every group. A body with two heads is freakish, and a body with no head is dead. It is the same for organizations and groups. Even in consultative bodies, headship is required. God sets a husband and father as head of the household, the domestic church. This is consistently taught in scripture (Col 3:18; Eph 5:22; 1 Peter 3:1, inter al).

The authority a husband and father has is for service, not domination. He exercises it among those of equal dignity before God, but he has this authority and it ought to be acknowledged and observed. He is not to be bitter toward his wife or lord it over her, but he must be willing, with love, to manifest headship in his household. (I have written more on this topic here: A Unpopular Teaching on Marriage.)

Many today have set this teaching aside, and the result is that many marriages resemble more an ongoing power struggle than a loving, cohesive unit. It is not necessary or even wise for a husband to micromanage everything in his household; he does well to keep deep communion with his wife and often defer to her judgment. However, there are some matters that require a final decision-maker, someone to whom everyone turns for direction and for a final decision. Scripture assigns this role to the husband and father.

Scripture says, Children, obey your parents in everything, for this is pleasing to the Lord (Col 3:20). God sets a father in honor over his children; a mother’s authority he confirms over her sons (Sir 3:2). While we have already commented on these verses in terms of respect and honor, we ought to note them here in terms of hierarchy. Children are to respect the hierarchy of the family. They are not on par with their parents and should not act as if they are.

When I was growing up, my Father made sure to confirm my mother’s authority over us children; he would not tolerate us being disobedient or disrespectful toward her. A good husband and father is careful to do this. Even when we were adults, my father would not allow us to speak ill of our mother or behave disrespectfully toward her.

Thus, while all the members of the family have equal dignity before God, not all have the same role. Hierarchy is important in the family for good order and teaching. God sets it forth and it ought to be observed carefully.

Helpful virtues – The first part of the second reading today from Colossians 3 provides a veritable encyclopedia of virtues to cultivate.

Put on, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, heartfelt compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience, bearing with one another and forgiving one another… put on love, that is, the bond of perfection. And let the peace of Christ control your hearts…And be thankful (Col 3:12-15).

When I am preparing couples for marriage, I spend an entire session talking about this passage. All the virtues here are essential for good family life.

Notice how many of the virtues emphasize compassion, mercy, and forgiveness. Families are composed of sinful human beings who have issues and struggles. Day-to-day life, too, can be difficult, causing strain on marriage and family. How essential, then, to develop these virtues!

Every now and again people come to me for advice in preparing for Confession; I often refer them to this very passage. I ask them to read Colossians 3 and assure them that if they read it carefully, they’ll have plenty to confess before they’re halfway through!

So many stresses and strains could be either avoided, endured, or handle charitably if the virtues of Colossians 3 would only be cultivated.

Holy teaching – The text from Colossians goes on to say, Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, as in all wisdom you teach and admonish one another, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs with gratitude in your hearts to God (Col 3:16).

Nothing can be more essential in having a godly and holy family than having godly and holy teaching.

With rare exception, we have utterly failed in this regard. There is nothing more important than instruction for eternal life. Yet in how many families is this instruction seldom or never given?

If a child is failing math or some other subject in school, most parents react with alarm, realizing that their child’s future may be at stake. They will often spend money to secure tutors and other help. If their child knows little or nothing about God, about why they were made, about the purpose of their life, though, who cares?

Parents put bumper stickers on their car boasting that their child is on the honor roll but have little interest in whether he or she can recite the Hail Mary or the Glory Be or knows the difference between the Old and the New Testaments. Where’s the bumper sticker that says, “My child knows the Lord!” or “My child is smart enough to pray!”

Parents will spend tens of thousands of dollars so their child can get a college degree, a career, a car, a house. Yet do they even inquire as to whether their child attends Mass or is living anything close to a Christian moral life?

This is a tragic situation: the ladder of “success” is leaning up against the wrong wall. Great effort is expended on things that pass away and almost none on things that will last forever, come Heaven or Hell.

Scripture is clear: the home must be a place where godly wisdom is taught, lived, modeled, and proclaimed. Parents should read their children Bible stories every day. Children must be taught God’s law and how to walk in the holy fear and reverence of Him. Family members should not only teach one another; they must admonish as well, summoning back to what is right and true.

Parents are the principal educators of children in the ways of faith. While much is rightly said about the dearth of teaching coming from the pulpit, ten minutes a week is not going to accomplish what is necessary or called for in a text like this. Even if a particular parish lacks a good preacher, that is no excuse for failing to teach one’s children. There’s nothing to prevent parents from carefully studying the catechism and teaching their children from it or reading them stories from a children’s Bible every day and teaching them God’s Word. Holy teaching should be the hallmark of every family.

Heroic sacrifice – In this matter we look to St. Joseph in today’s Gospel reading. Through an angel, God instructs Joseph to protect his wife and child by taking them to Egypt immediately, for King Herod seeks to kill the child.

How many fathers, indeed parents in general, struggle to get their priorities right? Too often career eclipses their vocation. For many fathers, their work takes priority over their role as husband/father. While the two are not directly opposed, there are times when the focus on career can to damage the capacity to be a good husband and father.

What Joseph has to do in going to Egypt will clearly have an impact on his career and his agenda. Scripture speaks of him as a tekton, which many think means “carpenter,” but it is more literally translated as “builder.” Joseph probably worked in the building trades. Going to Egypt in the middle if the night will certainly hurt his business. In addition, he would likely have preferred to return home than to go to a foreign land. But his child and wife need him. He is their protector; the husband, father, and head of the household.

Heroically, Joseph obeys God and immediately takes his wife and child out of harm’s way. He does not count the personal cost. This is the kind of heroic sacrifice sometimes required of parents and family members. Joseph approaches this situation as a husband and father, not a businessman.

Doing this is hard, and it is heroic; many a man’s ego is strongly linked to his work. As would most human beings, men naturally fear losing their livelihood. Joseph heroically trusts God and witnesses that his vocation as husband and father is more important than even his “paycheck.”

More than ever today we need more heroism of this sort. The pursuit of wealth and a comfortable lifestyle too often trump the essential work of being a parent and spouse. Lifestyles today are often too costly to maintain, requiring two incomes and/or long hours. But children need their parents at home more than they need a big house or nice cars. Having a vacation home may be nice but having your parents at home is better.

Too many parents today are willing to let strangers raise their children so that they can earn more money. For what? For the children? Really? If it is “for” them, why are they often pushed to the margins? Life is complicated, but every now and then it is good to re-examine our priorities and be willing to sacrifice for what is more important than what we merely desire.

Here, then, are some teachings on marriage and family from today’s feast. We do well to heed what the Lord teaches. Our families are in crisis. Individual choices have led us here and individual choices will have to lead us out.

God has a plan for marriage and family: one man and one woman in a stable, faithful, and fruitful union, raising their children in that context and bringing them up in the holy fear of the Lord. We must heed this plan or suffer the consequences.

Finally, there is a tendency when hearing teachings with which one has struggled to lash out in anger (“You’re judging me!”) or to become despondent and retreat into silence. Please do not do either. All of us, whether we have been able to keep to God’s teaching or not, ought to proclaim it. Perhaps you have not been able to get married and/or stay married. Perhaps you wanted to remain married, but your spouse was unwilling. Perhaps you had a child outside of marriage. This is all the more reason to speak clearly to your children and grandchildren and urge them to seek God’s graces early. God has a plan, and it is for our good not our ill. Teach it boldly and with courageous love!

Here is a video that describes typical family homes in Jesus’ time.